The Chemistry of Daily Life: Malnutrition & Diabetes

Who Created the Course?

Matthew Fisher

Associate Professor and Chair
Department of Chemistry
Saint Vincent College
300 Fraser Purchase Road
Latrobe, PA 15650
724-805-2356 office
724-537-4554 fax

Saint Vincent College Faculty Webpages


This laboratory course for non-majors has been taught since 1998 and explores basic concepts in chemistry through two related issues of growing national and international importance - malnutrition and diabetes. Nationally, 36.3 million people-including 13 million children-live in households that experienced hunger or risk of hunger. Food insecurity rates are 22.1 % for African-American and 22.3 % for Hispanic households; double the national average. Globally, 852 million people across the world were hungry in 2004, up from 842 million the year before.

The other extreme of malnutrition is obesity. Globally, more than 1 billion adults are overweight and more than 300 million adults are clinically obese, a 3-fold increase since 1980. Among the many risks associated with obesity is the development of type II diabetes. More than 177 million people worldwide suffer from diabetes, with that number expected to more than double by 2030. Understanding these two extremes of malnutrition requires a grasp of both the chemistry of the human body as well as the chemistry involved in food, nutrition, and drugs.

The course naturally divides into two "halves". The first half focuses on helping students develop a degree of comfort with the "language" of chemistry through a combination of lectures and in-class worksheets where students learn and use chemical concepts. Wherever possible, examples used in lectures and laboratories come from every day life. For example, the lab on stoichiometry and balancing chemical equations uses the analysis of sodium in chicken broth as its focus and acid-base chemistry is done in the context of evaluating the cost effectiveness of various antacids. In the second half of the course, the same mix of lectures, labs, worksheets, and informal group work are used to demonstrate how chemistry enables us to describe and analyze how the body uses various classes of molecules (fats, carbohydrates, proteins) for energy and how the body regulates these metabolic pathways.

The course also examines:

- the relationship between protein structure and function with particular emphasis on enzymes and hormone receptors

- the structure of DNA and the technologies involved in genetic testing

- micronutrients and the consequences of micronutrient deficiencies

- toxicity and exposure in the context of risk assessment

- how drugs work and how new drugs are developed

The course uses a number of teaching strategies, including group projects, "Just-In-Time" Teaching (JiTT), and experiential or community-based learning. In JiTT, which was added to the course in Spring 2004, students respond electronically to carefully constructed web-based assignments which are due shortly before class, and the instructor reads the student submissions 'just-in-time' to adjust the classroom lesson to suit the students' needs. This provides continuous assessment and a "feedback loop" that maximizes learning and comprehension. Collaborative learning is fostered in a final group project and presentation that takes the place of a final exam.

The course continues to evolve and in the Spring 2005 semester a "personal project" was added. The choice of project was discretionary and some students elected to help the Campus Ministry with the Oxfam Fast for a World Harvest, or with a monthly feeding of homeless individuals in downtown. Others worked with the campus Wellness Center on an educational activity related to diabetes or obesity. Students were asked to keep a log of the time they spent on the activity and to write a paper reflecting on ways that their activity helped them understand the connection between the chemistry concepts they learned and the civic and social contexts in which that chemistry exists.

What are the Course's Learning Goals?

The course has several learning objectives:
- to use the chemistry of macronutrients and micronutrients to make informed decisions on questions of nutrition and diet;
- to make informed decisions about drug usage based on chemical models for drug action and how drug safety and efficacy are evaluated;
- to evaluate the relationship between chemical concepts relevant to particular issues such as nutrition and drug usage and other relevant perspectives (economic,ethical);
- to develop students' abilities to assess risks and benefits as part of making a reasoned decision regarding issues involving science and technology

As a course that partially fulfills the natural sciences requirement of the Saint Vincent College Core Curriculum, this course aims to fulfill the following goals of the Core Curriculum:

"To promote understanding of the natural sciences"

Scientific literacy is demonstrated when a person can
- describe the nature of scientific knowledge, use the scientific method, and comprehend, present and critique scientific work;
- explain the most fundamental observations and models developed in the process of scientific inquiry;
- evaluate the impact science has had on the human condition.

"To form habits of ordered inquiry, logical thinking, and critical analysis"

- analyze the reasons leading to specific ideas;
- evaluate the views of others based on appropriate evidence;
- use directly collected data or data given to construct knowledge by organizing (synthesizing, sequencing, or interpreting) the new information with previous background;
- critically review habitual assumptions in order to accommodate existing beliefs and assimilate new knowledge

Course Goals

This course is designed to help achieve the goals for understanding the process of science developed by natural sciences faculty at Saint Vincent College. These goals include:

1. Students should be able to describe the nature of scientific knowledge. To demonstrate this, students should be able to give an example to illustrate the following characteristics of scientific knowledge:

a. It is drawn from evidence gathered through experimentation.
b. It enables one to make testable predictions.
c. It is probabilistic and is an estimate of the truth.
d. It is tentative and changes as new evidence is unveiled.

2. Students should know how to use the scientific method and should understand the difference between the scientific method and other forms of inquiry. To demonstrate this, the students should be able to follow the steps below to conduct an experiment at an appropriate level of difficulty:

a. Ask a question that can be addressed scientifically.
b. Formulate a testable hypothesis.
c. Design and perform experiments to test the hypothesis
d. Use sound ethical judgment in formulating an experiment.
e. Accurately and honestly collect and interpret data.
f. Process and analyze the data.
g. Draw conclusions from the experiment about the hypothesis.
h. Compare and contrast the scientific method to other methods of inquiry, particularly those used in the student's own field of study.

3. Students should be able to present, comprehend, and critique scientific work.

This goal is demonstrated in the following ways:
a. They should be familiar with the conventional components of a presentation (Introduction, Method/Procedure, Results, Discussion).
b. They should be able to communicate their scientific findings to their peers in both written and oral forms.
c. They should demonstrate the proper means of citing other sources, and giving credit to co-authors.
d. Students should be able to define plagiarism as it applies to the natural sciences.

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